Despite laws in many states that protect non-smokers from secondhand smoke, exposure remains especially high for children ages 3 to 11, African-Americans, and those who live in poverty or rental housing, according to a recent report.
Jessica Hollenbach, the director of asthma programs at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, agreed with the report, done by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and said tobacco is a negative toxin that can make other illnesses worse.
Hollenbach studies the relationship between secondhand smoke exposure and asthma in children. She said tobacco is an asthma trigger, and children with asthma often have higher exposure to second-hand smoke.
In Connecticut, 13.9 percent of public school students have asthma, according to a state Department of Public Health report released last year. The report also found that asthma prevalence rates significantly increased, from 13.2 percent in 2006 to 14.2 percent in 2011.
Tobacco smoke continues to affect non-smokers, and many people don’t realize that, said long-time anti-smoking advocate Pat Checko, who is a member of the boards of directors for the Connecticut Public Health Association, the Tobacco and Health Trust Fund and the MATCH Coalition.
“In some ways, tobacco doesn’t resonate with the public anymore, because they think it’s taken care of,” she said.
Checko said young children are especially hurt by secondhand smoke because they are still developing. Children are at greater risk now, Checko said, because due to bans smoking often shifts from the workplace to homes and other private places.
[Children] “are really prisoners in the house,” Checko said, adding that households with smokers should establish rules. “Take it outside.”
In its report, the CDC stated that while the number of people who are exposed to second-hand smoke has dropped significantly over the years, 58 million U.S. residents are still exposed.
The CDC found that about two in five children, including seven in 10 African-American children, are exposed to secondhand smoke. Nearly half of black nonsmokers and more than two in five nonsmokers who live below the poverty level are also exposed, as are more than one in three nonsmokers who live in rental housing, according to the report.
“Eliminating smoking in indoor spaces is the only way to fully protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke exposure,” said state Department of Public Health spokesman William Gerrish.
In Connecticut, 2014 statistics show that about 30 percent of non-smoking adults and 38 percent of the state’s children are exposed to secondhand smoke. A 2004 state law prohibits smoking in restaurants, bars and many workplaces, but it leaves room for several exceptions.
More changes are needed, and Gerrish said his agency provides assistance and resources to housing complexes and workplaces that do not have smoke-free policies in place.
Marianne Mitchell, a nurse practitioner in Danbury Hospital‘s pulmonary department who also runs Quit Now, the hospital’s smoking cessation program, said she regularly sees patients — mostly adults — with illnesses, such as bronchitis, that are present for a prolonged period of time. While the patients don’t smoke, she said, they often live with, or grew up with, someone who did, she said.
“They just catch things a lot quicker, and it stays around longer,” Mitchell said.
Checko said she was not surprised by the CDC’s latest findings. For years she has advocated for comprehensive anti-smoking policies in Connecticut, and she has identified areas where changes should be made.
In addition to children, anyone living in multi-unit dwellings such as apartment buildings or senior housing complexes are also at great risk of secondhand smoke exposure because air is shared, Checko said. About 40 housing authorities in Connecticut have implemented smoke-free policies, but more need to do so, she said. The MATCH Coalition works with the state to encourage housing authorities to go smoke-free.
Karen DuBois-Walton , the executive director of the New Haven Housing Authority, said the authority surveyed most of its residents to determine smoking rates and interest in smoke-free housing. The results were mixed, she said.
As a result, DuBois-Walton said, the housing authority is focusing on smoking cessation in an effort to build consensus for a smoke-free environment. One non-smoking housing building is currently available in New Haven, and the long-term goal is to introduce smoke-free communities more broadly, she said.
In addition to public housing authorities, Checko said private landlords should be encouraged to prohibit smoking in their buildings. And state lawmakers can help stop exposure to second-hand smoke as well, she said.
Checko said the legislature should stop raiding the Tobacco and Health Trust Fund, which was established to fund anti-smoking efforts. It should also do more to make more workplaces and buildings smoke-free, she said. Checko said private clubs, such as Veterans of Foreign Wars’ halls, are not required to be smoke-free.
Electronic cigarettes also need to be treated as a tobacco product, Checko said.
The CDC reported this month that e-cigarette use among high and middle school students tripled from 2013 to 2014.
Allowing smoking in private clubs and electronic cigarettes are issues currently being discussed by the General Assembly. A bill that would prohibit smoking in private clubs died in the legislature’s public health committee, but the same committee passed a bill that would ban the use of electronic, or vapor, cigarettes in many public places, including bars and restaurants. Under the legislation, electronic cigarettes would still be allowed in several locations, including workplaces and public housing.
The public health committee also passed a bill that would prohibit people from smoking in a motor vehicle when children are in the car.